Celebrating Shaul Mofaz’s election as the new leader of Kadima, party activists declared in the small hours of Wednesday morning that “the party has been reborn.”

The man of the moment himself, delivering a strangely muted, monotonous address as delirium reigned around him at party HQ, asserted — as he had done throughout his bitter leadership battle with Tzipi Livni — that he was now bound for the prime ministership, gearing up to restore Kadima to governance.

Really?

Kadima is a party that Ariel Sharon founded when it became impossible for him to bend the Likud to his will, the grouping of ex-Likud and ex-Labor ideologues and malcontents with which he sought to permanently determine Israel’s borders, whether unilaterally or through negotiation. That didn’t work.

It is the vehicle with which Sharon’s successor Ehud Olmert — elevated to prime minister when Sharon proved unexpectedly mortal — sought to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to accept a permanent Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation on the most generous terms Israel had ever offered. That didn’t work either.

It is the most ineffectual opposition in living memory — at a time when the Supreme Court is under political assault, and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insistently refuses to offer leadership on the destiny of the West Bank settlement enterprise. And although it is the biggest faction in the Knesset, it would do well to emerge from the next general elections as the third or fourth largest — after the Likud, Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu.

Indeed, while Mofaz may dutifully read the words his speechwriters formulated about Kadima regaining the country’s leadership, it would do well to emerge from the next elections in any kind of viable form at all.

To have any chance of survival, Mofaz’s Kadima will have to urgently decide, and explain, what it represents and hopes to achieve. Is it the party of Olmert and Livni-style peacemaking even at a high price, or will it shift to Mofaz’s more skeptical positions? Mofaz, in his victory speech, rather desperately unveiled a new persona obsessed with social justice, where previously he had wanted to be seen as a man in Sharon’s “Mr. Security” mold. Good luck with that.

As the Shinui experience made crystal clear in 2006, no party in Israel can assume it will survive if it has lost its raison d’etre. Shinui, riven by internal fighting — sound familiar? — plummeted from 15 seats in the 2003 elections to precisely none three years later.

As Israel eases slowly into general election mode — with a national vote expected some time in the next 12 months — many of those of a hawkish inclination on security and diplomatic issues will be leaning towards Netanyahu’s wary Likud. Many of those for whom social inequalities are paramount — maybe because they can’t feed their families — will be looking to social-justice champion Shelly Yachimovich’s resurgent Labor. Not very many at all will be thinking of a party most of whose members couldn’t even be bothered to cast a ballot to choose their new chief. And this at the culmination of a noticeably unpleasant leadership campaign in which policy barely figured.

Tzipi Livni was a high-minded politician, earnestly acting in what she saw as the national interest, but too often refusing to let reality intrude.

She stuck out marathon sessions of negotiations with the Palestinians, under the Olmert government, because she rightly recognized the imperative to seek an accommodation that would guarantee Israel’s Jewish and democratic future. And no matter how unresponsive and unforthcoming were the Palestinians.

When Olmert was forced to resign amid corruption allegations, she spurned the opportunity to succeed him as prime minister — refusing to submit to Shas’s extortionate coalition demands. A woman of principle, indeed. A politician to admire. But a politician, nonetheless, who presumably had entered that nasty business in order to lead her country, and who passed up the opportunity when it presented itself.

Unrewarded for her integrity with sufficient seats to form a coalition in 2009, she and Netanyahu failed the voters by letting personal enmity and ego derail the prospects of a unity government. Such an alliance would have marginalized the ultra-Orthodox and other narrow-interest parties, might have facilitated a reform of the election system, and could have produced long-overdue consensual positions on Israel’s territorial red lines.

Self-sentenced to opposition, Livni seemed simply to be waiting there for those unappreciative Israelis to rediscover her. That was never going to happen. Now Kadima voters, by a quite devastating margin, have forsaken her too — in favor of a man who had a very hard time making up his mind about joining Kadima in the first place, publicly agonizing about the decision to leave the Likud.

Placed against the background of Livni’s ineffectuality, given the miserable turnout on Tuesday, and considering Kadima’s current state in the polls, perhaps Mofaz was right to sound muted in delivering what was supposed to be a celebratory address.

Yes, four years after he first failed in the attempt, he had finally defeated Tzipi Livni. Well done, Shaul, You’re the king of Kadima now. But tell us, please, what do you stand for that other leaders, of other parties, don’t already more credibly represent?